The Innovation Conundrum – Talk at Boston University

I had the privilege of kicking off Boston University’s Digital Learning Initiative speaker series on September 13.  Here is a transcript of my talk, questioning the rampant use of innovation as a benevolent qualifier for acts of technology or society.


I have had occasion to come to Boston but have never ventured beyond the city proper – so I brought the family on this trip and we have made plans to create an adventure tomorrow as we make our way to my son’s godparents in New York City. My family is in Manchester today, and tomorrow Boston will merge into Providence before we head down the coast. We will be on the lookout for things which not only look different from our West Coast expectations but which differentiate from one another. And that will not be easy. We do not live here, we do not know the history beyond a Paul Revere poem and a John Adams miniseries – we only see the merger of commerce with residential and industry, gas stations and convenient stores and strip malls acting as a buffer between residential zones, repeating and repeating and repeating so as to relegate the landscape to a metropolitan area, seen as a mixture of municipalities by the locals but as a large mass of same by those on the outside. Manchester, Boston and Providence are steeped in separate histories, but at 10,000 feet they are all Greater Boston.

This population phenomenon is known as conurbation. In the United States we tend to use the term metropolitan area as a blanket term denoting cities and suburbs, or television signal areas. Conurbation, though, represents a fusion of what was once separate; Houston has endless suburbs but those areas were always Greater Houston, while Providence is the capital of a state separate from the governance of Greater Boston.   This talk is a bit of a conurbation…we will pass through places, pay attention to areas, maybe the conclusion comes early and the premise comes late, but at the end when we take a 10,000 foot view we will hopefully see it all together.

Conurbations are not neutral. Nothing is. Economist William Beveridge addressed how these problems have affected the United Kingdom, noting how employee commutes into London were a drain not only on the economic system but also on individuals, for every 40 hour work week a person lost on average eight hours to their commutes. Cities grow not because of the needs of its citizens but because of the demands of entrepreneurs, resulting in a quality of life increase for a few but a decrease for the majority. Beveridge said to the House of Lords, “Today, as compared with those thirty-five years of my personal experience, we have revolutionary progress in the means of travel…That revolutionary progress in means of travel is being used not to make shorter travel but to make more travel.” Beveridge gave his speech in 1959. Technology continues to grow, what is the benefit? Do we even weigh the benefit in terms of the past, or is the past immediately so far gone we have no foundation?

Greater Boston is one of the older conurbations in America, along with New York/Philadelphia, Los Angeles/Inland Empire and South Florida. Recent years have seen a rapid increase in conurbations, local areas of history and uniqueness melded together by population growth stretching beyond traditional limits: Oakland/San Francisco/San Jose, Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill, Denver/Boulder, Corvalis/Salem/Portland and even Provo/Salt Lake City. There are similarities on a meta level and not just within the conurbations: each of these city groupings includes a thriving higher education system and an existing commercial epicenter. But there are many college towns close to big cities throughout the United States; what makes the cities I just listed a unique phenomenon, while middle Minnesota remains the Twin Cities?

The difference is where economist Enrico Moretti believes he has found a secret sauce driving American growth and progress. In his 2012 study, Moretti portends that per capita patent requests are the most significant indicator of an area’s ability for both dynamic and sustained growth. Job reports, venture capital investment, housing prices and educated population density are seen to be either complimentary to or the result of events happening within these conurbations. Inventors register patents, bringing more people to these areas and resulting in landscape changes well beyond population density. The future, and the solutions to the problems of society, will be found in the work and output from these spaces, spaces Moretti calls innovation hubs.

There are not many innovation hubs in America, or for that matter the world. Moretti is quick to acknowledge the success of Manchester/Boston/Providence is in part because people leave Bangor, Hartford and Pittsburgh to come here. This is a fact of capitalism, notes Moretti, faintly echoing the words of Joseph Shumpeter and Clayton Christensen but where the creative destruction and disruptive innovation target municipalities rather than businesses. For those within the innovation hub, there is the promise of a better life. And the purpose of the innovation hub is to project a better life beyond its walls, the technological revolution providing digital luxuries on a global scale. This is trickle-down meritocracy at its most magnificent heights.

The echo I hear in Moretti’s text comes from science fiction author William Gibson: “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” Innovation hubs are a tacit reminder of the room left to grow and the progress yet to reach more of society, manufacturing economies of Cleveland and Cincinnati juxtaposed with knowledge economies of Seattle and Austin. But what about the uneven distribution in the innovation hubs, in the centers of the new economy, at the heart of the unsaid but understood promises of technology and innovation to improve our lives?

I noted Moretti’s link between patents and innovation; there are others who slightly disagree with this approach and define innovation hubs by tech start-up density. Within either apparatus, a handful of cities and conurbations emerge as innovation hubs: San Francisco/San Jose, Seattle, Austin, Portland/Salem/Corvalis, Salt Lake City/Provo, Denver/Boulder, and Boston/Cambridge. Some of these cities have seen population explosions over the past 20 years: Austin and Portland are also in the Top 10 cities for population growth, with Seattle close behind. There are 20% more people in Austin today than in 2000, 11% in Portland and 10.5% in Seattle. But while African-American populations have grown from 13% to 16% of Americans over the same period of time, Seattle’s African-American growth over that time was only 3.5%, Portland 3.1%, and Austin saw their African-American population decline nearly 5%. To compare, Fort Worth’s was the fastest growing city at 36%, and it saw a 28% increase in African American population. Charlotte, NC grew 35%, its African American population grew 45% over the same time. Columbus, OH grew 11%, and saw a 26% growth of African Americans. Of the 12 fastest growing cities in America, the three innovation hubs not only had the three lowest percentages of African-American growth, they were the only three cities to see African-American growth below the percentage of African Americans in the country.

William Beveridge’s generation was promised mechanized commutes of ease. Those took nearly two hours each day. A generation ago we were promised flying cars. We are still waiting. Today, the promises are more subdued, innovations rather than inventions. But the innovations are growing at a rapid pace. We are told by no less than the President of the United States we need to be a country of innovators, to innovate in our workplaces, to adopt innovative mindsets and use innovative practices to tackle the problems of our organizations and our societies. The inventions of the 20th Century did not solve the problems they were sold as able to solve. But if we listen to Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Richard Branson and other technology luminaries, an investment in innovation is the key to achieving those solutions.

I struggle with this belief, this abdication, this pivot from the technologies of the 20th Century and their failure to meet grandiose expectations to the preponderance of grandiose expectations to be found in the innovations of the 21st Century. Changing words, moving from invention to innovation, does not result in a fiat of changed behavior. Especially when the word we have changed to, innovation, means less than invention. I could, and plan to, argue that innovation means less than any other word we use in regular discourse. This meaninglessness has an historic precedent, a non-concept which resulting in strong opinions but no conceptual space. We can define what we believe innovation to be, but our words do not mirror the results we believe to be possible. Because of this, we find ourselves in a cycle of promises, unmet expectations, doubling down on the concept of development, and back to the promises.

Knowledge is Power

baconAmong his many contributions to Western society, Sir Francis Bacon added a new accolade at the dawn of the 21st Century: the Father of Innovation. In the same way Samuel Beckett’s riff about failing better emerged as the ethos of a Silicon Valley mindset, Francis Bacon’s development of empiricism and the scientific method has been appropriated as the first innovation, perhaps even the greatest innovation.

And like Beckett, there is a quote oft-used when discussing technology or innovation or Silicon Valley attributed to Bacon: Scientia Potentia Est, translated from Latin into Knowledge is Power.

Knowledge is power. As society moves from an industrial economy to a knowledge economy, it will not be enough to produce this knowledge but one must be able to apply knowledge. For innovation, this means digital tools, data aggregation, back-end analytics compiling information to be repackaged as automated, integrated or personalized computer engagements. For the innovation economies, the social democratic celebration of knowledge is power moves a step beyond and into a space of capitalist production.

There is a wonderful meme about this quotation, a Reddit user telling an anecdote of hearing this quote as “Knowledge is Power, France is Bacon” and wondering where in his cognitive dissonance he was missing the surreal meaning of this juxtaposition.

150602For 10 years this young man asked people about the quotation, everyone agreeing with the words, no one questioning the seemingly incongruence of knowledge is to power as France is to bacon. The story ends with the young man coming across the quote as written and realizing his childhood folly.

What if I were to tell you the young man was right to question Knowledge is Power – Francis Bacon? That France is Bacon makes more sense than Francis Bacon? There is no written record of Francis Bacon writing “knowledge is power.” Thomas Hobbes, who himself was a disciple of Bacon’s, wrote the words knowledge is power in 1651, 25 years after Bacon’s death. But even here, to equate Thomas Hobbes’ words to a postindustrial call to arms is questionable at best; while it is true Hobbes sees the inevitable result of knowledge to be empowered action, the quote comes within his epic essay Leviathan, a socially-based call for all peoples to surrender freedoms to their absolute soverign.

Yet we have Knowledge is power. Absolutely, except the whole lack of knowledge thing about who said knowledge is power. What is baffling about this adherence to a misappropriated quote is that there is an easy way to link Francis Bacon to innovation. In 1604 Bacon wrote Of Innovations, the first essay written by anyone about the topic of innovation. Prior to Bacon, innovation was word sprinkled in a few Plutarch writings, and before that infrequently appearing in political Greek writings. Innovation as topical in and of itself starts with Francis Bacon in 1604. So why put three words in his mouth when he had 1000 on the exact topic?

“It were good, therefore, that men in their innovations would follow the example of time itself; which indeed innovateth greatly, but quietly, by degrees scarce to be perceived.”

Francis Bacon’s thoughts on innovation are languid, to be discovered rather than forced, and “by degrees scare to be perceived.” This does not fit with the fail-fast mentality of Silicon Valley start-ups and technological entrepreneurs whose ethos requires breakneck speed. Innovation must “make a stand upon the ancient way,” and through what we today would call standing on the shoulders of giants we can determine the best path forward. There are no happy accidents, no eureka moments, no resolute and intrepid charismatic individuals pushing against the envelope. There is thoughtfulness and care.

I need to take a step back…what we would call “standing on the shoulders of giants,” Bacon would have called standing on the shoulder of one giant. Francis Bacon was a devout and pious man. Some interpret Bacon’s words as what he had to say and how he had to act, similar to other scientists of the time who wrestled with the beliefs of the Church against their findings of science. Others take Bacon at face value, and see his efforts to relate his works to the Church as genuine. Innovation in the 16th and 17th Centuries was a pejorative, a cudgel foes used against one another in their verbal sparring. It is fair to say Bacon’s Of Innovations attempts to reconcile the development and progress element of innovation with the Church of England’s proclamation against innovation. His efforts were successful, in limit, or just for him really. By the time of Charles I innovation was not only a verbal barb, but a felonious claim. Parliament famously cited Charles I for innovation, and Charles in turn threw the label of innovators on Parliament. Some members of parliament lost their ears and tongues because of the claims and subsequent trials. Charles lost his head.

Perhaps the misappropriated quotation is only misinterpreted. In 1597 Bacon did write Scientia Potestas Est, or “Knowledge itself is Power,” compiled in a series entitled Religious Meditations. The problem is, pulling four words from the middle of a sentence and expecting the pronouns to stand alone fails the purpose of the actual quotation

The third degree is of those who limit and restrain the former opinion to human actions only, which partake of sin: which actions they suppose to depend substantively and without any chain of causes upon the inward will and choice of man; and who give a wider range to the knowledge of God than to his power; or rather to that part of God’s power (for knowledge itself is power) whereby he knows, than to that whereby he works and acts ; suffering him to fore know some things as an unconcerned looker on, which he does not predestine and preordain

Assigning the pronoun to its antecedent, Knowledge is God’s power. Francis Bacon’s life and works could easily be an accurate and honest example of innovation, albeit complex and difficult to readily tie to 21st Century sensibilities. Using him as a visage for a decontextualized and improperly attributed quotation is not a celebration of Bacon or his innovations, but salesmanship. What is being sold?

Schumpeter Won. Who Lost?


“Innovation is simply the introduction of something new.” Is it? “Simply” is always a red flag for skepticism.

2500 years ago the Greek philosopher Xenophen wrote of kainotomien translating today to “new cuttings.” This is the root of what in Latin turned into renovo, revolution, novare, novelty, and innovo, innovation. In the classical Greek, kainotomien was a practical suggestion to deal with an economic problem: mining for ore was becoming less profitable as Sparta worked through its various mines. Deeper digging required a greater understanding of the process, and the unsafe conditions meant miners could charge a higher price for their services. Profit margins were harmed, but the need for ore was just as prevalent.

Xenophon’s suggestion was not innovative in the manner we might think of today. It was not technological; he did not develop new machinery for digging or building scaffolding. It was not organizational; he did not promote new techniques for extraction, or of a shift in collective working. It was not creative; he did not envision changes to the industry. Xenophon’s suggestion was to engage the political: he wanted to take the public slave labor and put it to work in the private mines. As Sparta had rules and governance about the use and subsequent freedom of its captured slave population, Xenophon called on government to allow these slaves to be put to work in the mines. Costs would remain low and work could continue without the problems of increased wages or safety concerns for Spartans.

Several months ago I had a discussion on innovation with a group called Virtually Connecting, comprised of technology-interested scholars who attend conferences and share the happenings through social media tools such as Google Hangouts and Twitter hashtags. A participant from California asked me what this meant: was there unique significance that the first example of innovation was not a product or a process or a mindset or a spirit but an exploitation of a human population? This is a tough question – I bristle at suggesting that historical events can be decontextualized and recontextualized to provide meaning for a modern population, but looking at the innovation hubs it’s tough to ignore the traces of connection. For me, the shock of this story, and why I share it, was ballast for the premise of exploring the innovation conundrum – this seemingly benign word, simply the introduction of something new, was not as innocent as it may seem. Adherents of critical and cultural studies will be quick to note the politics of all our signs and signifiers, yet for whatever reason innovation is a concept we have failed to scrutinize. Innovation purports progress, forward movement, betterment. Who could be against innovation?

I am not against innovation. But I am not for it. And much of that is because I do not know what it means. It originally was an effort to put slave labor to work in the private sector. It was wielded as evidence used to find King Charles guilty of tyranny. So I do not accept it as simply the introduction of something new. And, as we look at the literature, an ambiguity around this simple concept has resulted in disparate definitions on the topic.

  1. The Product

Joseph Schumpeter (1912) – innovation is the introduction of something new to a population.

Innovation became synonymous with “simply” by way of the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter. Across thirty years and two world wars, Schumpeter would use this brief definition as foundation for a systematic view on the functionality of capitalism and the system could perpetuate successes, a theory he called creative destruction. In short, creative destruction believes there is nothing sacrosanct in the free market; everything eventually will be replaced or become obsolete. Flexibility is key, and new entrepreneurs with new products are the tributary to capitalist economies.

  1. The Process

Everett Rogers (1962) – innovation is an idea or application perceived as new by the receiving individual or group.

When Schumpeter wrote of innovation, he was grounding his work in an economic framework. Everett Rogers’ theory on the diffusion of innovation utilized the same discipline-specific context, replacing the economic with the social. Pulling from Schumpeter, Rogers allows innovation to remain a ‘simply’ but here purposed for social mobility and change. The mid-20th Century growth of social sciences and practitioner-based outreach drives Rogers’ ideas for innovations to permeate groups and cultures for the sake of betterment.

  1. screen-shot-2016-09-12-at-7-35-07-amThe Value

George Couros (2015) – innovation is a way of thinking resulting in new and better things.

It is fair to note that Rogers profited greatly from the success of Diffusion of Innovations, more so than Schumpeter profited at the time of Creative Destruction. Moreover, as the mid-20th Century morphed into the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, the rise of analysts and consultants provided Rogers a ballast to apply Diffusion of Innovations to markets congruent or even tangential to sociology: predominantly soft-science practitioner realms such as business and education. By the end of the 20th Century, people no longer relegated innovation to a discipline (technological innovation, political innovation), nor did they contextualize innovation. Perhaps it was Rogers’ diffusion of diffusion, perhaps it was the technological revolution’s ubiquity, but innovation became about good things for people that almost always involved technology.

The unencumbering of innovation from its roots allowed us to move beyond products and processes. Innovation did not have to be about x product or y initiative, it could be about people. For innovations, innovators could apply innovativeness to be more innovative. We value innovation, we cherish it, and as George Couros outlines in his recent book The Innovator’s Mindset, our approach to problems and challenges can result in the new and better products and processes.

  1. The Curveball

Thorstein Veblen (1915) – innovation is an accomplishment bound in the affairs of the collectivity, not a creative achievement of individuals.

If you are viewing this talk with skepticism right now, that is understandable. Even though Schumpeter, Rogers and Couros are approaching innovation from different perspectives and for different purposes, there are common themes: it’s something new, it involves change, and it’s straightforward. Yes, definitions from 150 years ago, 500 years ago and 2500 years ago differ from these accounts, but we are in the here and now, and the argument seems semantic. Don’t hate the linguist, hate the linguistics.

Joseph Schumpeter has become a bit of a folk hero today, in large part thanks to Clayton Christensen’s engagement of his work as part of the theory of disruptive innovation and subsequent books, including The Innovator’s Dilemma. We read Christensen, learn about Schumpeter and look to engage the history – what more can we learn about Joseph Schumpeter and what might his teachings help us learn today? We don’t do the same with criticism, however. There is criticism of Christensen – Jill Lepore’s 2014 article in The New Yorker is a great place to start – but there is little effort to go back and engage the history, see Schumpeter’s theory not as we want it to apply today but in contrast to his peers?

At the same time as Christensen began tinkering with innovation, another Austrian economist had come to a very different conclusion on innovation. Thorstein Veblen did not see entrepreneurs as the lifeblood of an economic engine unless they were engaged within the community of operation. Technologies, in this instance, could be instrumental and in service of the imperatives of the society, or they could be ceremonial and rooted in what Veblen called the conservation of a society’s history of ‘tribal legends.’ For Veblen, innovation had to be contextual – progress in and of itself was meaningless unless it furthered the social aims and goals of the culture.

How often did Veblen feel innovation and technological progress was in the spirit of the people, a communal good? Veblen is most often taught to young economists for what the textbook The Economics of Innovation calls a bit of mischief – the quote invention is the mother of necessity. At the time Schumpeter was just beginning to consider the realm of creative destruction, Veblen saw innovation solely as the pursuit of entrepreneurs and society, an effort to gain creative distinction on products and services rather than provide a greater benefit with products or services. The innovation Veblen saw celebrated in economics was rooted in capital and profits, life improvements were only of a consumer nature. The difference between Xenophon’s definition of innovation and Veblen’s was not a benevolent product or process, but that exploitation had evolved from slave labor into consumer culture.

Conclusion – Sesame Street

14246312560_980b584f68_kThis talk has been a conurbation, a tour of the critical innovation hub stretching across several distinct stories, looking very different but the threads to tie it together hovering at 10,000 feet. What does this all mean? How does it all tie together? Is there a conclusion?

Am I against innovation? It is ironic we don’t hear people today saying they are against innovation, considering 400 years ago there were no people saying they were for innovation. I would argue it is difficult to be against a non-concept. It is also difficult to be against improving society. But as these examples have made clear, innovation by itself is not about improving society, or about progress, or about a better tomorrow.

I can make enough of an academic case to say innovation means nothing, the non-concept used as superlative for what we wish to advertise as the good things. But there is a difference between a qualifier which has nothing to qualify and meaninglessness. Innovation has moved societal discourses for the better part of the last generation. In education, we have seen a substantial rise in the term’s use across popular discourse. Innovation centers and innovation incubators and innovation institutes dot higher education landscapes, filled with well-meaning people dedicated to improving the acts of teaching and learning, supported by millions of dollars at a time academia is financially insecure. The brainpower and the money can be put to good use, in the name of innovation. But if all these innovation spaces and places start their work without ever questioning or even defining the word at the forefront of the new money, what can we expect from the projects that come forth?

If we like the idea of a benevolent innovation, of progress and improving society, we have to demand benevolence. The act of describing something as innovative does not make it benevolent, no matter how loudly politicians or educators or technologists or entrepreneurs claim innovation as a virtue. Creating a conceptual space is a tall order, but we can easily start by providing thoughtful critique of initiatives and accountability for their results. You say that’s an innovative product – why? Your methods are innovative – how? You put an innovation into the field – what happened and did it provide the kinds of benefits people associate with innovation? What are those benefits? If innovation becomes too cumbersome a term, excellent – we now can use more specific words to address more specific instances.

I want to leave with one last story, a conurbation in and of itself, weaving true innovations with fascimiles, places where there was positive affect as well as illusory, and at the heart a promise for a better tomorrow which pulses through our society because of anecdote and not fact.

This conurbation would be much more difficult to find from 10,000 feet. From there, could you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?

Today the marketplace has provided quite a few roads to 123 Sesame: you can turn on PBS or log into or find PBS On Demand or open up your PBS app and be there instantly. It was not always this easy, and were it not for federal legislation, Sesame Street may in fact be condos or a parking garage today. Before apps, or the web, or cable television, we had analog television broadcast on VHF and UHF. And before that we had just VHF. And congruent to the VHF we had FM radio. And before FM we had AM.

And this is all important because in order to really understand something we must work past our present-day biases and assumptions, get inside the history to see original purpose and whose original purpose it was and how that colors what we believe today. The founding and flourishing of Sesame Street depended on a sequence of events.

  • AM radio’s popularity mixed with the lack of signal quality led to experimentation that created FM, and subsequently the FCC sectioning off bandwidth for FM.
  • At the same time, the opportunity to put image and sound together for transmission was at hand, and the FCC sectioned off bandwidth space for television, 13 channels in the VHF range.
  • TV was lucrative, FM was not…often called the Forgotten Medium. People wanted television. Radio stations wanted to turn into TV stations, in some cases giving their FM licenses back to the FCC in hopes for a VHF signatory.
  • There wasn’t enough space for VHF, especially in densely populated areas with signal crossover. So, the government sectioned off some military bandwidth and created UHF, channels 14 to 83.
  • Problems with VHF transmission meant the FCC had to impose rules on what cities had what frequencies. The band was not evenly distributed. New Jersey only had one VHF station. Many smaller cities had none. Rural areas often could not pick up VHF.
  • UHF could reach further and gave everyone an opportunity to own a television signal. But quality was lesser. And most TVs just went to 13. People expected a TV to have a dial with 13 numbers. Suddenly a dial with 84 numbers…that did not fit the vision of television for many people. TV manufacturers did not build TVs past 13.

Something had to give – broadcasters wanted their stations to be transmitted, television manufacturers struggled to sell televisions with dials more complex than 13. It took an act of Congress, the 1962 All-Channel Receiver Act, to force television manufacturers to create televisions capable of receiving 83 channels. Broadcasters had bandwidth; although the UHF signal was less reliable it could travel a greater distance. Television manufacturers begrudgingly joined the UHF movement, though their initial solution would not look innovative to the entrepreneurs of today – two dial knobs, one between channels 2 and 13, a second between 14 and 83.

The All-Channel Receiver Act did not resurrect the fledgling UHF band of television; networks already had the VHF bands and the networks provided the programming to their affiliates. And programming was designed to bring viewers to watch the advertisements, so advances in television programming were almost entirely on the VHF band. By 1971, there were only 170 heavily trafficked UHF stations

But many of those were connected to the public television sector. Sesame Street played on VHF and UHF, depending on the city. What made Sesame Street important, dare I say innovative, was its effort to reach those who had not been reached for whatever reason. Some were urban households in VHF areas, others were rural homes watching UHF – the earliest goals of Sesame Street included access to quality early educational contents in a pleasing programming format. Sesame Street’s place as a cultural touchstone comes in large part because its efforts were to transcend societal barriers and reach many cultures in many places.

Sesame Street was successful in this. In the early 1970s it was called an innovation within educational circles, because the innovation seen was a social one – the provision of academic contents to students across cultural, geographic and socioeconomic strata. As a technological innovation, the true change was thanks to government legislation providing impetus for television manufacturers to engineer sets so no matter the location, a television could access a public television station.

sesame-street-gordon-picSesame Street has been on the air for 46 years, a 47th season starting in January. So why do recent media herald that its most innovative days are in front of it? What could be more innovative than a mission to reach young children from all walks of life and doing so through the undesirable television wavelengths? According to the Children’s Television Workshop, the innovation pushing their efforts focuses on “how each new device that hits the market can be used to help children learn.” Two years ago, the web periodical Fast Company celebrated the innovative spirit at Sesame Street necessary to keep a 45 year old show relevant, focusing specifically on the Innovation Lab inside of the Children’s Television Workshop. The innovations here do not involve content choices such as characters talking about healthier eating habits or non-traditional domestic situations, but rather about how mobile apps, premium and freemium, and voice technology can achieve personalized learning. “How powerful would it be if preschoolers could talk into these digital platforms and have a character directly respond to them?”

Technology already does much of this, though not around curricular learning frameworks. But Sesame Street was founded on early childhood education, a discipline which values exploration over computational knowledge. Thorstein Veblen would look at these innovations and relegate them to the ceremonial aspect of technology, perpetuating the culture of the tribe rather than the growth of the population. Who is empowered by these app-based interactions with Elmo? Who can afford the devices? The apps? The add-ons? Is an app-based Grover talking about phonics a more transformative experience for a child than time with an adult engaging the context of the situation and the child? If we don’t think so, then why aren’t we working to find ways to achieve those results, instead linking apps to curricular materials and licensed characters? And what does it mean that characters Luis, Gordon and Bob transitioned into off-camera ambassador roles, removing each one’s 40+ years of television experience from the learning engagement?

The future of Sesame Street is here, it is just not evenly distributed. And when we get past Sesame Street the innovator we see Sesame Street the example of the privatization of publicly funded education and the hopes on technological solutionism. Moreover, Sesame Street has pivoted from their mission to follow the money, joining HBO and providing first-run programming to the cable network for nine months before airing it on PBS. This move was to stay competitive, according to CTW. What is the market of competition? The mission of Sesame Street in 1969 was to provide quality on a platform as easy to access as any other public medium.   It looks quite different in 2016, the street now a conurbation, an innovation hub, accessible in many ways, but not by the main road anymore, which is a shame.

Thanks to Alan Levine for featured image

About Rolin
Assistant Professor & Director of EdTech & Media at Seattle Pacific University. Consultant w/ RAM TEC. Work with faculty, teach students, explore non-formal learning spaces (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums)

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